'I found a community': Melissa Vincent on how Hart House's music magazine helped launch her career

Melissa Vincent, who graduated from U of T five years ago, has penned numerous articles for major Canadian and U.S. publications, and sits on the board of the Polaris Music Prize (photo courtesy of Melissa Vincent)

Just five years after graduating from the University of Toronto, writer, editor, producer and strategist Melissa Vincent is making her presence felt in the world of music journalism.

She penned a 2020 cover story on singer-songwriter Jessie Reyez for Elle Canada and had pieces published in high-profile American publications such as BillboardThe Fader and Pitchfork, as well as with the CBC, Globe and Mail, Canadian Business and Vice.

In 2019, Vincent joined the board of directors of the Polaris Music Prize. She has also led content platforms operated by Banger Films, Blue Ant Media and Universal Music Canada; and produced a podcast to support the launch of the music docuseries “This is Pop” on Netflix. 

Vincent, who double majored in urban studies and book and media studies as a member of University College, says she was curious about music growing up, but felt it was unattainable. Over time, she developed her own voice for writing and determined what it was about particular albums that compelled her.

“In essence, I started to develop my tastes,” she says. “Then coming to U of T really helped clarify my thoughts about music, culture and art.”

Vincent traces the genesis of her career to Hart House, where she was editor-in-chief of Demo magazine, a student-run publication launched by the Hart House Music Committee in 2006.

She says she was introduced to Demo during University College’s frosh week. “A friend mentioned the Hart House music magazine and said I would love it.”

Her friend was right.

 “It was an immediate and obvious home. I found a community,” she says. “A lot of people I met in Demo are now my lifelong friends. To find a group of people that wanted to get into the weeds and have conversations around 30 seconds of a track on an album – this gave me a space to feel like I wasn't alone. It built a lot of intimacy, trust and safety.

“That community was crucial for me to gain confidence.”

Vincent also credits Demo for teaching her the importance of being a clear communicator, using the tools of journalism and determining a good pitch. At Demo, the editors help to train the new writers, making themselves available to talk through the pieces and check in at various points during the writing process. 

“One of the most brilliant functions of Demo is its built-in system of passing along situational, institutional and generational knowledge,” she says.

It is the norm for someone to start at Demo in first year as a writer, watching how editors produce the magazine. Then in third and fourth year, they can advance to becoming an editor.

“I gained an understanding of the importance of setting up a good process for creative work. It's a system to make sure that editors are not going in cold – that they have resources and support. It sets up incoming editors for success.

“What I learned with my co-editors at Demo still serves me in my career today.” 

Some of Vincent’s most cherished undergrad memories are from Hart House, sitting with friends in the Arbor Room, which she calls an important creative working space.

“It was also a space for us to reflect on how we were doing in general – academically, emotionally or personally. We could count on chatting and then coming out of the conversation in better shape. I am so grateful that Demo was a conduit for us to do that.”

She recalls the excitement of seeing the first proof of each Demo issue: “Running to the office, getting it, then going to Hart House, sitting with a coffee across the table from each other and flipping through it, catching typos, getting the kinks out. It’s like you’re a midwife to this project."

Vincent says the space provided by Demo – and Hart House more generally – is something to be treasured. 

“We’re living in a cultural moment in the city where space is scarce; it is difficult to create,” she says. “When I think back to the pleasure and freedom of having access to a space like Hart House as a student, I realize there’s a lot of value and importance.

“My time at Hart House – a beautiful, historic spot with a lot of narrative depth – working in the Demo community taught me just how valuable that is to the creative process.” 

Vincent offers the following three tips for budding music journalists:

Have faith in your own opinion

“When you’re involved in cultural criticism, it’s important to discover and believe in your own taste,” she says. “When you say something’s brilliant, what do you mean? What’s unique about your opinion?”

She also believes it’s important to be in an intimate conversation with yourself and have a private place to reflect.

“Let yourself be playful and explore this,” she says. “When you listen to an album, be curious about its origin, its history, so you have some knowledge that will also help inform your taste.”

You can be in the big league while you’re still in school

“Don’t feel you need to graduate to start your career,” Vincent says, noting she began writing for the Globe and Mail in second year. “A lot of editors are willing to take a chance on an eager and enthusiastic writer that shows a lot of promise. You can be in the big leagues while you're still in school. You don't need to wait.”

She suggests writers pursue a mix of institutional study and extracurricular activities to gain practical experience.

“You have to let your academic study blend with some early professional experiences while you're a student.”

Community is everything

Vincent emphasizes the value in developing a community to brainstorm and discuss deadlines, the validity of feedback or the size and scope of an article.

“This community really comes in handy for you when you face big challenges,” she says.

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